I recently preached a short homily on Psalm 46. The following are my notes on the Psalm, divided in the historical context, literary context, theological insights, and contemporary application.
The superscription of the psalm says, “To the choirmaster. A psalm of the sons of Korah, set to Alamoth. A song” (NASB). The sons of Korah were Levites who were commissioned by David to sing in the temple (cf. 1 Chronicles 6:22, 31ff). So, the psalm as a song makes sense in this context; it would have been sung in the temple in the presence of the Lord.
The psalm itself paints a picture of the earth being consumed by violent people and even the earth itself being torn apart and falling into the sea. We think we walk on solid ground, but this ground is revealed as sinking sand in the psalm, where even the mountains are slipping into the sea (cf. Matthew 7:24-27).
However, there is one place where we may find refuge, one place that truly is solid ground. That is in the fortress of God, His holy city where He dwells. He is in the midst of the city, watering it with a peaceful river with its streams (as opposed to the violent water of the rest of the world). This land will not be moved, even though everything else gives way. In fact, the peace, refuge, and rest that is found in this city will one day encompass the whole earth when morning dawns. Then, God will make the raging and violence in the earth stop, and He will be exalted among all the earth.
Psalm 46 has a number of parallelisms and images that focus the thoughts of the psalmist on Yahweh as a strong, secure refuge and the rest of the world as chaotic uncertainty.
Thus, Yahweh is presented as “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” He has the all power, able to effect change through His Word, while the nations rage and the kingdoms totter. In addition, the roaring and foaming of the seas is contrasted with the image of the peaceful streams flowing through the city of God. The seas remove the mountains, while the city of God “will not be moved.” The earth has war and violence, but Yahweh ends all this with His voice.
The psalm is also divided by the common refrain in verses 7 and 11, which serve to bring structure to the psalm. Thus, in verses 1 through 6 we get a sense of the violence and chaos in the earth, which is contrasted with the peace and stability of the holy city of God, due to His presence there. These thoughts are concluded in verse 7. Then, in verses 8 through 10 we see how God overcomes the violence and chaos in the earth, bringing the peace and stability that is found in His city to all the earth. Thus, by the end of verse 10 we see God being exalted in all the earth, not just in His city. This concludes then with verse 11 where the psalmist again praises God as the “LORD of hosts” and the “God of Jacob” who is “with us” as “our fortress.”
The theological message of this psalm is centered around the refrain, “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (verses 7 and 11).
It is significant that this parallelism refers to God as both “the LORD of hosts” and as the “God of Jacob.” LORD of Hosts is Yahweh Sabaoth, and brings forward an image of God as the Almighty. He is the leader of a great mighty host, able to conquer and do all that He wills. He is terrifying. Isaiah got a glimpse of this in Isaiah 6 when he was brought before Yahweh’s throne and exclaimed, “Woe is me, for I am lost!” Isaiah encountered the holy LORD God and felt his sins and knew he was condemned for them. Even the angels shielded their eyes from the glory of Yahweh.
Yet, our God is not just Yahweh Sabaoth. He is also the God of Jacob; this name has the sense of God establishing a relationship with His people. Thus, He is our God who has brought us into relationship with Him. When Isaiah exclaimed “Woe is me, for I am lost!”, Yahweh atoned for Isaiah’s sins with a coal from the altar of sacrifice. In the same way, Yahweh atones for all our sins through the altar of the cross of Christ. Through Christ, God is not just Yahweh Sabaoth; He is also the God of Jacob. That is, He is our God who has established a relationship with us as redeemed sinners. We no longer face condemnation, but instead Yahweh is our God who has redeemed us from sin and death through Christ.
Therefore, as our God, Yahweh is our refuge and strength. The psalm is bookended with these statements of God’s strength and nature as our refuge; i.e. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (verse 1). Thus, the psalm begins, ends, and is divided by this theme.
Between these divisions, we see the activities of this fallen world. The dry land and mountains that we think are secure shelters break at the violent actions of the waves and slip into the sea. Yet, the city of God where He dwells is secure and watered by gentle streams. In addition, in the midst of the raging of the nations and the tottering of the kingdoms, Yahweh need only to utter His voice to melt the earth. Thus, we see a contrast between the chaotic, violent sea and the peaceful, orderly streams in the city of God; we also see a contrast between the strivings of mankind and the sure action of Yahweh’s Word.
Then, we see Yahweh’s “desolations” whereby He ends the desolations on the earth by ending war and destroying the instruments of war. So, in the midst of a fallen, chaotic world, God is in control and is a refuge and fortress for His people. We have the river of life here and now in Baptism and will have it in full when Christ returns. He will restore everything one day and end the chaos and violence. In the mean time, “Yahweh Sabaoth is with us, the God of Jacob is our fortress.” He is both the almighty Lord God, but yet He is our God, the one who saves us and dwells with us.
The contemporary context flows from the theological context. Our present world is still fallen, so we encounter chaos, disorder, and violence. The things that we think we can hold on to for support crumble away (cf. verses 2 and 3). All our idols fail us. In addition, we see the raging of the nations and governments tottering. Everything we might look to for help and support is too disorderly to provide much real support. Our unemployment checks run out, our social security may not even be there in a few years, our savings and investment accounts can be wiped out at the next great economic crash. Everything we are told by this world to rely in is revealed to be weak ground on which to stand.
But, there is a place that will not be moved. That is the city of God where Yahweh dwells. This is the Church where He has promised to be. In the midst of a fallen, violent, chaotic world, Yahweh dwells with His people in communion, peace, and order. He is the true shelter and solid ground in which to seek refuge. He is in control and dwells with His people; “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”